Dreamer’s Journey

When the message comes, by order of His Majesty the King, Eldred of Godin, that I am among those chosen, the news of it spreads quickly through the village.  Reactions among the townsfolk are as mixed as my own emotions.  It is an honor.  It is an insult.  It is a risk.

But I have been chosen, for whatever reasons, and for now my role is to wait and see what being chosen will mean for me.

I have heard tales of lands in which daughters are not prized, but in the world in which I live, a daughter would be a great treasure to many.  For King Eldred, perhaps in a different sense than to others:  our king has no daughters to offer Lord Taines, now so powerful that his keep, Theldry, is almost a kingdom unto itself.  Though it is said that the King of Seph offered his daughter in marriage to gain an alliance, and was refused.  So perhaps it makes little difference.

Lord Taines is not so easily won; he chooses his alliances carefully, and he will make no woman the next Lady Taines but by his own wish.

But the man is powerful, and Theldry is strategically placed.  Favor must be curried, it seems, even by a king.  With no daughter to barter (not that one would necessarily be accepted), and no desire to empty the royal treasury to pay tribute to a mere lord, Eldred has come up with an unconventional approach.

He offers four women, selected throughout the kingdom, as a gift for the great lord.  Ostensibly, to be his servants, as he sees fit.  We are not blood of King Eldred, so it matters little what use the great lord actually finds for us.  To be servants in his kitchen, or used as whores in his bed, or given in turn as gifts to his allies — in truth it matters little.  The King will not be offended by any of these uses, as he would were he offering his daughter.

True, it is merely a token offering he makes.  There are plenty of women in Theldry as well as in Godin, after all.  But it is a gift, a small and careful step in the direction of alliance, and one that makes an offer of friendship without the constraints of a more formal bond.  The King hopes that as such, Lord Taines will accept the gift; if he does not, we are not so highly prized that he must take offense at the refusal, though he may still choose to do so.  By being given, and by accepting what life Lord Taines chooses for us, we fulfill the requirements of the King and of Godin.

If the gambit succeeds, a door to future relations is opened.  If it fails, well, it will have cost the King nothing, or close to it.

What, I wonder, will it cost the four of us?

I have not met the others, not yet.  I have heard gossip, though.  It is said that one is a former courtesan of the King himself, perhaps fallen out of favor, though some suggest she is being offered as a special honor.  As the divergent stories come to me, I wonder which is true, and I wonder either way if she sees it the same way the King does.  I have heard that one feels such devotion to Godin and for King Eldred that she danced with joy at the chance to serve him with her life.  I have heard that one wept bitterly at the life of slavery or prostitution to which we may be subjected, has spoken to no one since, is guarded lest she try to escape or commit suicide.

I am the fourth and last.  I know my selection is an honor in one sense, an insult in another.  I know of the risk.

I have heard the tales of Lord Taines — noble, knight, dragon slayer, hero — and because of the man I dream him to be, I am willing to leave this land that I know and travel to his.  I am willing to risk becoming his slave, his servant, his mistress, even his whore, on the chance that I might be something else entirely.  Though I know nothing of who he is apart from the legends, though I know it to be a foolish wish, though I know my hopes to be unlikely bordering on impossible, I am willing, even eager, to go.

I am pleased to be chosen, for I dream of being the next Lady Taines.

To such meager hopes I cling, as I wait between one choosing and the next.

There is a strange surreal quality to going for dress fittings by the seamstress to the Crown, to have dresses made for me in fabrics I could not have afforded in twenty lifetimes.  Travel clothes, ball gowns, servant’s dresses of quality no servant I have ever met could wear.  I wonder, as I am measured, pinched, poked, fitted, dressed and redressed, how the others face this task.

The dresses fit to perfection, of course, and are made in colors and styles that flatter my complexion and figure.   My hopes rise for a moment.  I have never looked so lovely, have never even imagined looking so — but I remind myself harshly that the others have similar gowns, also meant to flatter them.  I remind myself that Lord Taines has already rejected a princess.  What hope can I afford?

The time passes with remarkable swiftness, until we are the threshold of the King’s timetable.  And so we are gathered together in haste to begin our journey.  A carriage is sent for me, and brings me to the castle.  I have seen it before, though only from a great distance.  Up close it is imposing; I would surely be overcome by the circumstances if there were a moment for such things, but I have no time to falter as I am rushed inside.

I and my belongings are left in a large room.  I try not to gawk at the finery around me, at the gold that gleams seemingly from every direction.  Still, I am overwhelmed and it takes me an awkward moment to register the manservant beckoning me to leave my belongings to the porters that hustle in, and follow him to a still larger room, draped with curtains of royal purple and trimmings of gold.

This room is far more impressive than the other, but I am distracted from my surroundings by the realization that I am the last to arrive.

Farthest from me but first to draw my attention — no doubt everyone’s attention — is a woman with rich blond curls, wearing a pale blue dress and what seems to me a miraculous amount of makeup.  She is dressed in finery, as we all are, but the way she carries herself, the way she speaks to the servants, makes it clear that she is in her own element here.  I would almost mistake her for a noblewoman, even for royalty in her manner, but… not quite.  The courtesan, no doubt.

Nearer to me, also to my left, is a slender woman with dark tresses that have the slightest hint of auburn in the light.  Her gown is more simple but no less lovely, in darker tones vaguely reminiscent of the flag and crest of Godin, and she stands with a straight stiffness and a lift of her chin that speaks of pride.  I sense instantly that she is the one who wept for joy at being selected.

A soft snuffling noise draws my attention to my right.  I get only the vaguest impression of the woman responsible for it, because a wall of straight hair, so pale that it is almost colorless, hangs over her face.  When she does look up, as announcements and instructions are given us, I make out only the vaguest impression of a face and eyes made blotchy from days of crying.

What a strange party we make:  the courtesan, the zealot, the weeper — and I, the dreamer.

And then, we are thrust into our adventure.  Servants are provided for each of us.  Sketchy details of the journey are provided.  While the trip to Theldry could be made in three days hard riding, we will be in carriages, and will therefore take closer to a week.  There will be stops along the way; the final one — primarily to allow us to freshen up after the journey that we might arrive looking our best — will be just this side of Theldry and ultimately Wistan Manor.  We are reminded both subtly and overtly, with pointed looks to the woman to my right, that we have been chosen for a mission of import to the realm and that we are to comport ourselves accordingly.

Which is to say, we are to be pleasing to Lord Taines in any way he deems fit, without complaint.

Three of us look surreptitiously at the weeper’s dour expression whenever such implications are made, as does the official making this speech to us.  Her expression is blank, as if she is refusing even to hear what it said.

Then still more servants announce that the carriages are ready, and we are escorted out to begin our journey.  The courtesan leads the way, carrying herself with the haughty air of one who has been long in the intimate company of royalty. The zealot is next, clearly anxious to begin the glorious mission on which she imagines herself.  I pause, unsure of my place, then go ahead as it is clear that the weeper is not anxious to join us.  I wonder idly if she will have to be forced into the carriage.  I imagine days on end of her running away at every stop.  What an interesting journey it will be, I think with some sarcasm, if at every stop we will be privy to such a show.

But no, apparently this has been foreseen and addressed.  When she resists entry, the leader of the guard strides impatiently up to her and speaks to her, his face a mask of barely controlled anger.  His lips move quickly but his voice is low and I do not hear what threats he speaks, but in response the color drains from her face, then she nods once and enters the carriage without argument.  The guard salutes in the direction of one of the upper windows of the castle, I suppose to the King, whom has not felt it necessary that we should see him before we depart.  Then the guard retakes his place; on some unseen signal the guardsmen take their places before and behind us; a call is sounded; there is the rattle of the rigging and the clatter of horses, and the carriage lurches forward.

And so our journey begins.

Over the days that follow, I get to know my companions better.  I cannot help but assess them as women, and as competition.

Closer up it is more apparent that Simone, the golden courtesan, is older than the rest of us.  Not much older, I think, though it’s hard to tell with the makeup.  She is voluptuous and clearly knows how to use that to her advantage, but in an understated way.  Her years at court give her a decidedly regal manner, and she can be sharp and witty and endlessly entertaining — sometimes even shocking — as she regales us with stories to pass the time.  She has no lack of words, and I find that I envy her ease, her composure.   I remember how arresting she was when we were in the castle, and I have no doubt that men must notice her as well.

But Simone is starkly realistic about her prospects.  She is a valuable commodity in her way, but she neither hopes nor expects to win the heart of our new master.  She has made a living at being a suitable companion for kings and nobles to public events — that she may have kept more intimate company at times is hinted rather than stated — and she hopes to make herself a place in Wistan Manor in the manner in which she has in Godin.  She hopes (she does not say, if Lord Taines is cooperative, and her looks and time permit her) to eventually to find herself a benefactor among the elder noblemen of Theldry.

She hopes, simply, for the life she would have had in the King’s court.  I sense a hurt and an uncertainty in Simone, but she hides it well behind her carefully drawn expressions.

Karina has so subjugated herself to the King’s will and the glory of Godin that no outcome can disappoint her.  She could become Lady Taines or be publicly executed — either way she would consider herself a martyr and either way she would consider the sacrifice worthwhile.  She is headstrong and rash and transparently loyal to Godin at all costs.  Such loyalty is admirable in its way, I suppose.  Certainly it lends her a passion and fire, but I doubt very much Lord Taines a great enough fool to take her into his confidence.

I do not understand Karina’s fierce loyalty to the crown, given our circumstances, but I do not begrudge her the right to find meaning in her fate.  If only she and Sara would not bicker so!  Sara cannot be silent about the injustice of our lot, and Karina cannot but defend the King.

It occurs to me that weepy Sara may oddly have the best chance for happiness in whatever life is chosen for her, because her expectations are shockingly low.  Anger overtakes her tears at times.  With her words and attitudes, she fervently disparages both our King and Lord Taines for her circumstances.  When she speaks so bitterly of the life to which the King has sold her, Simone’s face becomes an unreadable mask.  Is she angry or agreeing, I wonder, but on this she remains silent.  Karina, on the other hand, cannot control herself.  Where she is concerned, the King is not to be questioned.  And so the war is on between them.

When at last Sara turns her venom from the King to Lord Taines, Karina is satisfied while I am confused.  In what way is Lord Taines responsible for this, I wonder?  But I hold my tongue as best I can.  I do not wish to be so transparent as these two.  Finally Sara and Karina have exhausted one another with their ceaseless fighting, and turn to me as if I may settle their argument.  “What of you, Nicola?” they ask.

I am noncommittal, cautious.  “I do not blame Lord Taines for our situation,” I say carefully.  “To date, it is not he but our King who has decided our fates for us.  And I do not pretend to understand why this fate, or why I have been chosen for it.  I am not sure that King Eldred was right in this matter.”  Karina’s eyes flash anger at me as I speak, and I nod at her in acknowledgement.  “But he is the King, it is his right to give the order, and I obey.  What choice have I?  I simply hope that Lord Taines will be a good master.”

Sara’s bitterness unexpectedly bursts out at me.  “‘I hope Lord Taines will be a good master,'” she sneers.  “You say little but your eyes speak for you!  You imagine yourself in love with him?  He’s no hero,” she hisses at me, “He’s only a man, like all the rest, and a man who’s been given leave to do anything he wishes with or to us.”  She falls back against the seats heavily, the anger draining out of her and fresh tears falling.

It occurs to me that Sara is probably quite beautiful, with her pale skin and fair hair, when she isn’t red with anger or crying.

This fact, as much as her outburst, gives me pause.  I look out the window, not responding to her accusations.  Karina looks at me carefully, curling a single strand of her dark hair around one finger as she weighs Sara’s words about me, perhaps deciding for herself whether Sara is right about my feelings for Lord Taines.  I know that in her eyes that would make me a traitor to Godin.  My indifference is not feigned as I ignore her.  Woods pass by the window.  The carriage wheels creak over the rough road, the horses’ hooves beat steadily on, but inside the carriage we mostly hear the heaving sounds of Sara, still weeping.  Simone watches us all with assessing eyes, then looks out the other window as well.  The silence suits us for the moment.

That night, having been settled into an inn for the evening, I lie in bed and consider each of us in turn.  I realize that the others are perhaps wiser than I am, each in their own way.  Sara hopes for nothing, Karina for a chance to serve the King (which she will do in any case), and Simone wishes only a life not unlike the one she left, a life to which she is suited and almost certainly will be permitted.  I realize that I am most likely to be disappointed by what life may send me, for I alone seem to carry great and utterly ridiculous hopes for my future.

Still, when sleep comes, I dream my hopeful dreams.

The days and nights pass, each much like the last.  Sara and Karina make an uneasy peace at last, perhaps born simply out of exhaustion.  To pass the time, Simone tells us stories of life in court, of kings and knights, of intrigue.  She tells us even some of the stories — nay, legends — of Lord Taines.  I am sure Sara has been right; no doubt my eyes dance with an interest that I try to keep veiled.

I learn also of the others.  Karina tells us stories of growing up the daughter of a soldier, a man who died in battle and was honored by the King himself.  She was but a girl at the time, and she and her widowed mother lived, meagerly but gratefully, on the pension that the King provided in her father’s name.  I begin to understand the sense of duty and of loyalty to which she has been raised.

Sara’s parents were killed on their farm by raiders when she was a small child.  That she saw and perhaps experienced unspeakable things is written on her face.  She was raised thereafter by the local convent, and hoped to take Orders herself.  But the king has called her out of the life of protected seclusion she loved, and I realize that more than anything else, she is frightened.

My stories are simple and bland by comparison.  I have never seen myself or my life as exciting.  I tell them of my simple if solitary life in my village, of days at the market, or teaching the children in the square.  “No beaus, Nicola?” asks Simone keenly, and I blush, then shake my head.  The new blacksmith had flirted with me, but it was not serious.  In the end, he married Marie, the butcher’s daughter.  “No, I am not sorry,” I assure them when they ask.  “They make a fine couple, and are well suited.  While I -” I trail off, not sure how to finish.

“While you are a woman without connections,” notes Karina with just a hint of a bitterness that surprises me at first.  Though perhaps not so much, on second thought.

“And an unfortunate tendency toward silent thought,” says Simone without rancor.  Leaning forward slightly, looking at me intently, she adds, “You must learn to speak up.”  She is right, I suppose, but I am surprised when she says it.

So as each day passes we learn more of each other, and with each night, I dream.

On our final night before our arrival at Wistan Manor, I think about Lord Taines — a stranger about whom I know nothing.  I think of Sara’s anger; about the fact that he is, after all, only a man.  I think about Simone’s stories of life in court, and I wonder what need this man will find of us.

I no longer hope to be Lady Taines.  The trip has cured me.  If nothing else, I now know it to be beyond me.  If he is the man I have dreamed him to be, I cannot win him, and if he is not, I do not want him.

It does not change anything.  My fate is no less in his hands for having abandoned fruitless hopes.

I sleep without dreaming, on this my last night of relative freedom.

On our last day, the carriages are rearranged.  Each of us is placed individually with her own belongings into a carriage.  We will each arrive, in turn, to be presented in the order in which we have been chosen.  The ride is shorter today, but lonelier.  The anticipation has no distraction to temper it without each other’s company.

Theldry is a beautiful land, and I admire it eagerly as we cross it on our way to Lord Taines’ ancestral home.  With such rich lands and so strategic a location, I can understand why he has become so powerful.  When at last it comes into view, I cannot keep my eyes from Wistan Manor.  It is breathtaking, the grounds lush and lovely, and even to my inexpert eye it is clear that it is also well placed for defense.

From my vantage point in the last carriage, I am given the most time to take in the scenery, and to watch the others’ reception at the manor.  I see the polite and yet intent way that Lord Taines, standing head and shoulders above most of the men, receives each in her turn.

Simone first, dressed in an elegant gold that lights her features and gives her a youthful glow, is received well and escorted inside by servants, while the lord turns to receive the next.

Karina has chosen for herself a gown of rich burgundy, the color of Godin.  The choice is bold and brash, as she is, but the dress also brings out the color in her face and the highlights in her dark hair.  She has that proud lift in her chin and fire in her eyes, which is met again by that penetrating look, the proper greeting, the escort inside.

Sara steps down from her carriage, and I suspect that she has taken one last opportunity to cry along the way.  Nevertheless, I note that the lavender in her gown accentuates the pale beauty of her face and complements her golden hair.  I do not see how Lord Taines receives her, though, for now it is my turn.

Suddenly I am frozen.  How lovely the others have looked.  How perfect, even Sara through her tears.  My gown of blue-green silk, I think, does not match theirs in beauty, but of course I cannot see how the color makes my eyes dance, their hue shifting subtly in the light like the sea.  I do not know, when Lord Taines fixes his gaze on me in turn, that he is not only assessing me — as he has assessed us all — but also he cannot look away from their strange, indefinable color.

He looks through me for what seems a long while.  I am unsure what to say.  I wonder if he can see my very soul.  I wonder if he knows the hopes I once had.  Color rises to my face at the thought.  What fate will he assign me?  What have I to offer?  I have not Simone’s charm and wit — nor her experience — and I have not Karina’s ardent purpose nor Sara’s bitter passion to sustain me.

And then the moment is broken and I am escorted inside like the others.

In time a meal is brought, and we all eat.  Simone is ever her witty, clever self.  Karina is somewhat abrasive; clearly nothing here is good enough for it is not of Godin.  Sara is suspicious, as if she expects to be murdered where she sits.  And I am quiet, listening.  When Lord Taines speaks, Simone is quick to answer, always ready as if she has been framing each answer while he talks.  No doubt she has.  I am not nearly so quick — I am listening, weighing his words, thinking about what he says.  And so I say little, and still less when I sense my silence is a disappointment to him.  I remember Simone’s words to me, but I am helplessly and frustratingly speechless much of the time.  Yet when I do answer, I am surprised at how closely he considers me.  Nothing escapes this man.  Those piercing eyes make me feel like a bird caught in a snare.

No wonder he inspires such stories.  He is fiercely intense.  Who would not fear him?  But there is also something else, something deeply thoughtful and gentle in him.

He sees us all so clearly, I think.  He seems to see through all of us, to what we really are.  But I know that I am nothing, and I find it unnerving, the way he looks at me, through me.  Yet he is charming with Simone.  He is polite and gracious to Karina though she seems to forget that she is a guest — less than a guest — in his home.  And he is genuine and kind to Sara, as if to settle her fears.

Lord Taines does not keep all of the ‘gifts’ that are offered him.  Some gifts are simply not appropriate to accept.  He plays host for an appropriate amount of time, in good faith, then returns both Simone and Karina to Godin.  They are carried with great honor in his own carriage, that there can be no implication of rejection on his part or unworthiness on theirs.  Messages to the King thank him for his excessive generosity, but nevertheless return to him two of his most faithful servants.  A home in Theldry is to be made for the other two of us, with thanks.

He plays this game well.  In the end he returns enough to King Eldred that he not be unduly indebted, and not so much that the King must be insulted by his refusal.  A beginning toward alliance is made.  In time it is strengthened.

From what I am told, Simone lives in the court of Godin, where she has a comfortable place in court society.  I understand that she has a benefactor there among the noblemen, her elder by nearly 15 years but known for being a kind enough man, and generous to her.  I imagine she must be pleased with this outcome.

I am told that Karina was noted with honor for her fealty, and was awarded in marriage to a ranking member of King Eldred’s guard.  It seems so very fitting.  I hope that he is a good and honorable man, and that she finds happiness with him.

Sara and I, on the other hand, stay at Wistan Manor.  We are invited, not forced — for Lord Taines is not a man who has need or wish to enslave defenseless women.  Choices we are given, and choices we make.

Sara stays for a while in the kitchens of the Manor, but in time she goes to serve in the rectory instead.  Serving the priests is a safe and quiet life, one that suits her, and it is near enough that she can come to visit me.  She comes often, and I am glad of it, for though I am busy much of the time, I am still sometimes lonely here in the Manor.  When my duties permit it, we walk the hills of Theldry, talking and laughing together, for these days I too have found my voice.  It is good to have so dear a friend, whose bright smile and easy laugh — things I never knew on our journey here — are a delight.

Of course, I was also given a choice, and despite the occasional loneliness, I have no regrets in the role I have chosen to play.  What choice I made and how it came to be offered is another tale.  How I fulfill it is a story that will be written with the rest of my life.


~ by lorakceel on January 16, 2011.

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